Hammocks, History and Horrors: Notes from Cambodia Trip

A quick list before I forget some important observations 🙂

  • For a long time to come, in a word association game, when someone says Cambodia, I won’t respond with Angkor Wat, but with hammock. Hammocks are everywhere. In front of their houses, at the back of their shops, on the tree next to a street vendor’s stall, on the specially placed hooks of their tuk-tuks and perhaps a bunch of other places I failed to notice.
  • Indians could learn something from Cambodians in the matter of traffic. That it is possible to have total disregard for all traffic rules and etiquettes, and yet not honk! Yes – they do everything we do, overtake precariously, jump signals, drive on the wrong side to save a “U” turn, but they don’t honk. In that matter they are completely western. Honking is reserved for dire circumstances, and the definition of dire far surpasses what the westerners or even us Indians would consider so. A lot of near-accident situations are let go of without honking or fighting.
  • Sometime in the course of history, they seem to have replaced horses with two-wheelers. Tuk-tuk, the most common form of transport for the tourists, is essentially a buggy hooked to a two-wheeler instead of a horse. But it doesn’t stop at that. They hook load-carrying carts, sometimes pretty long, street side stalls and even entire shops to the two-wheelers.
  • Small cars are rarely seen. Sedans and SUVs dominate
  • The tourist places are kept spectacularly clean and convenient. No equivalent of kurkure packets strewn around. Do the locals not visit, or do they have better civic sense than Indians is something I don’t know. Tourists just fall in line seeing that everything is clean and there are enough dustbins available. There are special, well-maintained toilets near most temples in Angkor that tourists with a valid pass can use for free. Toilets are fairly usable, with access to toilet paper, in other tourist places too.
  • Everything is cheap for westerners, but Indian tourists are not too badly placed either. If you are used to Bangalore restaurant prices, food is budget-friendly, although the prices near Angkor temples are almost double of that available in Siem Reap markets. Portions, especially of local food, are big and the desis should consider sharing.
  • Transport cost, however, hurts. Every time we stepped into a tuk-tuk it cost at least 2 USD, even for a very short ride. That’s 140 Rs. approximately.
  • Desi bargaining and haggling habits can help a lot.
  • Tips are not necessary or expected but are welcomed. Most workers, even in the tourism industry with its dollar prices, do not seem to make much money.
  • Angkor Wat and other places are amazing. After a long-long time seeing a historical place gave me a feeling of awe. The scale of everything is just unparalleled.
  • Despite all the other convenient arrangements, the onsite information is severely lacking on all Angkor sites. So, you better go with a detailed guidebook (if you have time to explore) or a guide so that you understand what you see around you. Other sites like Landmine museum, killing fields, genocide museum, and national museum in Phnom Penh have functional and well-produced audio tours, which are helpful for those with time to spare.
  • An Indian visitor’s (or those who are well-travelled in India) experience would be markedly different from a typical westerner’s experience. Cambodian religious beliefs are a strange syncretism or mishmash (depending on how you choose to see it) of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism including Vajrayana, Theravada Buddhism, and the ancient local religions. Sometimes when I found the guides or locals pronouncing Sanskrit names in strange accents, it felt like their tongues are working so hard at that. I felt like telling them that it’s okay. They don’t need to work so hard. I will pronounce it for them. I know that they mean “shayan” or “abhaya mudra”, when they are uttering some weirdly difficult words.
  • The same mishmash is visible in the temples, bas-reliefs, and most historical artifacts. At times, it can get funny. They have Hanuman and Ravana leading devas and asuras respectively in samudra-manthan!
  • They have some deep affinity for serpents going by their overuse in the temples, statues, and bas-reliefs. Perhaps the Khmer royalty was supposed to be associated with the Nagas in some way.
  • It feels like Indian religion and spirituality got exported in the same mish-mashed form to Cambodia a thousand years ago as it is getting exported to the West now. The spiritual tourists today happily hop from a Buddhist meditation center in Dharamshala to an ashrama in Rishikesh, feeling spiritually fulfilled, experiencing no dissonance that would arise from the awareness of the fundamental philosophical differences. Then they carry an overall idea of Indian spirituality with them back home which accommodates everything together the way it can’t be done in the land of origin of these religions. Intellectually it might be baffling, but people are emotionally happy with many Gods and paths to nirvana and fail to see any contradictions or inconsistency.
  • All the dancing female figures on the temple walls and artifacts are clubbed under a single name ‘apsara’, pronounced with typical Khmer laboriousness as ‘apsaaraa’. But we did manage to locate an obvious darpan-sundari in Angkor Wat.
  • Very strangely, the female dwarpalas are called ‘devata’. And perhaps so are the male figures which are not identified as any specific God or mythological figure. Perhaps there is an explanation, but I can’t figure it out.
  • Even though it felt like everybody around me has already visited Cambodia, the number of Indian tourists there seem minimal. Their tourism scene is dominated by the Chinese and the Korean tourists, followed by the Japanese, Australians, Europeans and Americans. More Indians should visit Cambodia. There is a shared cultural heritage which could be eye-opening to look at. And there is much to be understood about the modern political situation too.
  • Angkor-era temples in Cambodia are like Hoyasala temples in Karnataka. You can go on seeing one after the other and it will never end. But we were fairly happy with our four full days of stay in Siem Reap in which we covered areas near Angkor Wat as well as made a day trip to Prasat Preah Vihar near Thai border. We also had another half a day in which we just strolled through the Old Market, Pub Street and oriented ourselves to the place and its prices apart from seeing the McDermott Photo Gallery.
  • Cambodian history had to be pieced together in a way very similar to that of Indian history. From the archaeological evidence, inscriptions and Chinese travelers’ accounts. (Bless the ancient Chinese travelers!)
  • It is curious that the country first imported Mahayana Buddhism and then shifted to Theravada. I wonder how that happened. Perhaps some reading of history is in order.
  • It is also a weird coincidence of history that they brought back monarchy (even if strictly nominal) in 1990s to hold the country together.
  • But people are quite playful about the status, especially poverty, of their king. “Cambodian king must be the poorest king on the earth today,” joked one of our guides. “Thai king is the richest,” he informed us in the same breath, “I checked on Internet. And the richest business man is this guy called…. Yes… Bill Gates, right?” Another guide laughed when I expressed wonder at the amount of gold and silver housed in the Silver Pagoda. “The king who built it must be rich,” I said. “That was then,” she replied, “Now the government pays salary to our king.” Even in the rich days back “then”, the king was really a stooge of the French.
  • The landmine museum near Siem Reap (on the way to the exquisitely beautiful Bantey Sree), the killing fields near Phnom Penh and the genocide museum bring alive the horrors of 20th-century history.
  • At first, I wondered what could inspire one to make a tourist spot out of their miseries. Perhaps desperation to get those tourist dollars for a poor economy. Perhaps a noble sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world, warning them about the evils of violence even at the cost of disturbing your own peace of mind. But as I listened to the extremely well-produced audio tours of the killing fields and the genocide museum, another stark and sad reality hit me. For the current regime, keeping the horrors of Khmer Rouge alive is a propaganda tool. It is like warning their people and the rest of the world: Do you want to go back to that? If not, let us be in power. Irrespective of how disappointing we are in many other areas.
  • With that realization, the horrors of killing fields depressed me even more. It’s like people are being victimized again and again.
  • The current regime – despite a pretense of democracy – is still authoritarian. People aren’t allowed to protest. The new generation is not happy with corruption, lack of opportunities, poverty. But older people are content just to have no war. This is the summary of the current situation from one of our guides, and might be simplified to sound attractive to Western tourists. But from what I read and heard, it is not necessarily too far off the mark.
  • I am supposed to say that I return with happy memories from the vacation. But I return with a strange mixture of awe and fear and questions. I am happy I did this trip. I came to bear witness, my Cambodian brethren. Difficult as it feels to hope so, may all our futures be more peaceful than the past.
  • We ended our trip on a sweet note with some Cambodian desserts from Teuk Skor in Phnom Penh. I was disappointed with the lack of local desserts in the menus of most restaurants and was happy that I found them.

Read more in High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip).